Unless you’ve been living under a sports rock, you’re fully cognizant that former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL legend Herschel Walker will be making his mixed martial arts debut on January 30 at Strikeforce: Miami.
Walker isn’t the first NFL player to cross over into the sport of MMA. This past season of The Ultimate Fighter featured several former football players trading in the gridiron for the octagon.
Beyond the NFL, boxing is starting to see some of its combatants downsize their gloves and risk letting the fight go to the ground.
NBA great Shaquille O’Neal has been training MMA for 10 years now and lest we all forget former MLB player Jose Canseco’s one-and-done foray into the sport.
So what’s so significant about Herschel Walker?
For one, he brings lots of media attention to the sport.
Strikeforce is taking every opportunity to media blitz their latest high-profile addition. Walker was featured on today’s editions of Fox News Channel's "Fox & Friends" and Sirius XM's "The Howard Stern Show".
Even more important than general mainstream media attention: ESPN.
Tomorrow, Walker has been invited to ESPN’s Bristol Campus where he will appear live on ESPN First Take, ESPN News and The Scott Van Pelt Show.
That kind of airtime is hard to come by. Unless, of course, you’re Hershel Walker.
Offering the fifth degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do a platform to indulge his competitive spirit allows Strikeforce, and ultimately the sport itself, to make additional inroads into the mainstream sports culture.
Football, baseball and basketball are discussed on sports television shows and talk radio 24 hours a day, seven days a week. MMA is saved for conversation when something transcendent in the sport happens like UFC 100, or when a former NFL great signs up.
MMA must get itself to the point where the sport and its fighters are being name dropped on SportsCenter on a daily basis before it can ever truly be considered mainstream.
Will the 47-year-old Walker himself be the tipping point for MMA to fully embed itself into the collective psyche of sports fan?
Perhaps if he goes on to beat Fedor “Baddest Man On the Planet” Emelianenko, or signs with the UFC and becomes Heavyweight Champion. While the chances of that happening are slim to none, the longer the 6'1", 220-pound athlete keeps winning, the better the return on investment for MMA.
Sports are a way of life in America.
Football has, perhaps, the greatest influence on our country’s sports society. While MMA has come farther than anyone could have ever fathomed, it is still at least a generation or two away from fully weaving itself into the rich sports tapestry that has formed in our country over the last 100 years.
So when you bemoan the entrance of another mainstream sports figure into mixed martial arts, take your purist hat off for a moment, and think about what it will mean for the greater good.